Uncertainty is something we all feel at some time. However, for some of us this feeling of not knowing or unpredictability can lead to catastrophising, overthinking and feeling stuck. 

As a social worker and counsellor, I believe we can take steps to become friends with uncertainty. Or at least cope better with these feelings.

Recognising uncertainty

Uncertainty can feel uncomfortable, scary and confusing. It can make us feel like we’re lacking order and direction. It can arise in many different situations and create very different responses. 

Do you identify with any of the following stories of uncertainty?

Ismail is waiting for his lawyer to call with the outcome of his application for permanent residency. He feels anxious and calls his lawyer repeatedly.

Sarah and Ben have been together for five years and are feeling the pressure to have children. Ben is uncertain if he wants a life with children. Sarah is certain she wants a life with Ben but uncertain on a life without children.

Joe is experiencing suicidal thoughts and fears he may act on them. He feels uncertain about his future and the way forward.

Lisa has been offered a promotion at work but is uncertain she can do the job. She feels like an imposter.

Coping with uncertainty

Uncertainty can result in negative emotions and can even lead to issues such as anxiety and depression. However, there can be a positive side to uncertainty. A side that allows for an alternative story. 

To turn the negative into a positive, try these strategies:

1. Become aware of your habits and your story

There are things you can do to manage the impact of uncertainty and anxiety such as getting regular exercise and sleep, eating well, and participating in activities that help you release stress. If you’ve formed bad habits around exercise, eating or sleep, it may be time to make some changes to your routine.

Likewise, your internal monologue, fixed beliefs and expectations can impact on your feelings and emotions. What are you telling yourself? Is it helpful or is it creating more uncertainty?

Do you tend to react with anger, blame and criticism? These emotions all arise from unrealistic perceptions and therefore reinforce the negative feelings of uncertainty. When expectations aren’t met, they can contribute to feelings of uncertainty, resulting in emotional turmoil.

2. Practise mindfulness

Over the last decade a significant body of research has emerged that demonstrates the effectiveness of mindfulness for a variety of conditions, including conditions like depression and anxiety that are often the result of experiencing uncertainty.

Practising mindfulness, for example by meditating or doing breathing exercises, gives each of us validation of our own agency, that we are agents in the creation of our experiences that help us identify active aspects of ourselves in an experience. It involves learning to sit in and work through our own discomfort rather than avoiding problems and unpleasant feelings.

3. Talk about it

It may seem obvious, but acknowledging uncertainty and having a conversation with someone you trust can provide the opportunity for more insights that can construct new meaning of an experience. A position of uncertainty can push each of us to make an effort to understand our own or others’ experience.

Sharing our story and translating emotional experiences into words is a powerful coping tool. And to be truly helpful to someone, support that person by facilitating the person’s sharing of the experience. 

Giving voice to something previously unacknowledged can be empowering and can provide new awareness, insights and perspectives to make meaning of the previously uncertain experience. 

Remember, uncertainty is not a permanent state of conflict and may vary depending on the moment and context in which it’s occurring. Once you recognise it, it can often be resolved by creating self-awareness, being mindful and giving voice to your story.

About the author

Tracey Petersen-Esposito is a Clinical Social Worker and Counsellor, and Founder at www.oranahealth.com.au. She has more than twenty years’ experience as a health professional in a range of settings. Tracey assists individuals, couples and families with a range of needs around emotional and psychological distress, bringing an empathetic, non-judgmental and compassionate approach to the therapeutic relationship.

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